Once upon a time, in the mid-1930’s, there was an English crime journalist named Peter Cheyney. Cheyney had tried writing fiction, as well as war poetry, but had failed to make a name for himself. Bewildered by the popularity of American hard-boiled thrillers, he remarked to his friends that anybody — absolutely anybody — could dash off a book in that style. His friends bet him five pounds that he couldn’t do it himself. So Cheyney sat down and wrote “This Man is Dangerous”, featuring a hard-drinking, two-fisted American secret agent named Lemmy Caution.
The book was a huge success. Of course, Cheyney knew his subject — because he himself was a hard-drinking, two-fisted crime investigator who had spent a year running “security” for a far-right British political party. Like Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Lemmy Caution had a bit of his creator’s soul in him. After the success of “This Man is Dangrous”, Cheyney went the Edgar Wallace route, writing several parallel series of crime novels and stories, and enjoying tremendous commercial success.
Like Wallace, Cheyney came to emphasize quantity over quality; and after his death, his reputation (like Wallace’s) suffered an immediate decline (though Wallace’s books, unlike Cheyney’s, have never gone out of print). There’s a further similarity between Cheyney and Edgar Wallace: both are known less today for their writings than they are for the series of continental European movies they inspired… though again, it must be said that more people know Lemmy Caution these days than have ever even heard of Peter Cheyney.
Once upon a slightly later time, there was an American entertainer named Eddie Constantine. Constantine had tried to establish a career in the US, but had failed to make a name for himself. Having studied in Vienna, Constantine decided to make use of his European connections and try to start over as an expatriate. He caught the attention of the legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf, who helped make him a star.
In 1953, two years after Peter Cheyeny’s death — yet while his reputation as an author was still relatively high in France — film-maker Bernard Borderie was looking for a convincing actor to play Lemmy Caution in the movie La môme vert-de-gris / Poison Ivy. Though Constantine was inexperienced as an actor, having appeared only in bit parts in a few movies back home, Borderie thought he looked the part, and cast him in the role.
Poison Ivy is a very strange movie. It begins with an atmopsheric POV-camera crawl through the streets of Casablanca — though it’s not done as a single take, it does prefigure the amazing opening tracking-shot of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. There’s something very Wellesian about the opening scenes, too, as we witness a murder in a Casablanca night club. The mood, the lighting, the camera angles are all classic film noir, and when one of France’s most recognizable actors, Gaton Modot, appears as a police inspector, we think we have a pretty good idea where the movie is going to go. But then, suddenly, everything changes. When Eddie Constantine’s Lemmy appears on the scene, Modot’s police inspector disappears from the story entirely. From that point on, it’s Constantine’s show, as he faces off against crime boss Howard Vernon in a film that’s much more action than noir.
Constantine’s performance has been criticized as overly amateurish, and I suppose that’s fair… considering this was his first major role. But if you watch Poison Ivy carefully, I think you’ll see that Constantine’s performance is better and more nuanced than you might expect. To a viewer more familiar with the American accent, it should be clear that in many scenes Constantine is modulating his ability to speak French depending on the situation: there are times Lemmy Caution wants to appear to be a clueless American, out of his depth.
Regardless of the critical reception, French audiences loved Constantine’s Caution. Poison Ivy launched Constantine’s career as a movie star, which for a while even overshadowed his considerable success as a singer. Within the year, Borderie had completed another Lemmy Caution flick, Cet homme est dangereux — that’s right: the first Lemmy Caution book inspired the second Lemmy Caution movie (“Poison Ivy” being the third novel in the series). Cet homme est dangereux is a prequel to the earlier film, with FBI agent Caution undercover as an escaped convict. In the opening scene, we’re told Caution has managed to escape from prison in Oklahoma and has fled by car to the nearby city of New York. This ignorance of American geography is matched by the whole series’s ignorance of the way the FBI really works, but who cares? In the second film, Lemmy preserves his cover by behaving like a completely amoral gangster, killing people in cold blood. Constantine’s performance cemented his popularity as an action film star, and led not only to a ten-year series of Lemmy Caution films, but also got him cast as American detective Nick Carter in yet another series of movies… not to mention a number of imitation Lemmies.
Once upon a still-later time, in the mid-1960’s, there was a Spanish director named Jesús Franco. Franco had tried his hand at making movies in a number of different genres and styles… and had made a terrific reputation for himself. In fact, he was considered one of Spain’s top rising young film-makers, on the strength of movies like Rififí en la ciudad. But Franco was stifling in the cultural atmosphere of a Spain ruled by that other Franco, and spent as much time as possible enjoying the freedom of early-sixties Paris. While he was there — eating good food, listening to (and playing) good jazz, and avoiding his bigoted Spanish chaperone — he made the acquaintance of many other international artists who’d gravitated to Paris as the cultural center of post-War Europe.
One of these artists was the writer Jean-Claude Carriè, who was fluent in Spanish and had recently begun working with Luis Buñuel. Franco and Carrière worked together on Miss Muerte / The Diabolical Dr. Z, often described as Franco’s best horror film, and possibly his best movie of any kind. After Miss Muerte, at the request of the producer Serge Silberman, the pair started work on a vehicle for Eddie Constantine. According to Franco, Silberman was apologetic about hiring such talent for a purely commercial B-movie. But Franco and Carrière, confident that neither Siberman nor the Spanish co-producers would even glance at the script before the shoot began, decided they’d subvert the genre.
It’s not as though they were the first to do this: in fact, Jean-Luc Godard had just cast Constantine as Lemmy Caution in his film Alphaville. In Godard’s movie, the world of interplanetary science fiction looked depressingly like contemporary Paris; Lemmy Caution, fighting against a computer that was taking over the minds of humanity, looked old and tired and sick of the whole tough-guy persona. Alphaville is considered a classic today, but at the time it was so unexpected and baffling that it just about killed Constantine’s acting career.
Franco admired Godard above all others, and thought Alphaville was the best film Constantine ever appeared in; but even he wasn’t willing to go quite that far in subverting the action genre. Certainly, having spent so much time at the movies in Paris, it’s likely he’d seen many of the actual Lemmy Caution films — though by the last official entry in the series, 1963’s A toi de faire… mignonne, Borderie had run out of both ideas and energy. A toi de faire… mignonne had sort-of kind-of pointed the way toward Alphaville with its hint of science fiction in its McGuffin (a kidnapped scientist with a revolutionary new fuel). But far more than A toi de faire… mignonne, or even Alphaville, Franco’s and Carrière’s eventual script seems to have been influenced by a non-Caution Constantine film: Marcel Ophüls’s Faîtes vos jeux… mesdames!.
Marcel Ophüls was the son of the great director Max Ophüls (La Ronde, The Earrings of Madame de…), and is probably best known for his powerful documentaries, such as The Sorrow and the Pity and Hotel Terminus. Yet in 1965, the man who would go on to become one of the world’s foremost chroniclers of human barbarity made one of Eddie Constantine’s best, most lighthearted and funny films. Faîtes vos jeux… mesdames! again uses a quasi-scifi backdrop, involving the abduction of the brilliant son of a brilliant scientist by an international spy ring. The key difference — and this could not possibly have escaped Jess Franco’s attention — is that in this case, the spy ring is an organization of women, dedicated to the overthrow of the world’s patriarchal governments.
In Ophüls’s movie, women spies from both sides of the Iron Curtain have grown tired of being used as playthings by their governments. The last straw was when they were required to seduce several old and repulsive Generals over secret state documents… which turned out to be completely blank. The added joke is that the revolutionary organization of empowered women wants their ransom in the form of fur coats and jewelry. While Eddie tries to navigate between the opposing camps — he sympathizes with the women, all the while he hopes to seduce them — the abducted young genius falls in love with the daughter of one of his captors… much to the distress of her man-hating mother. In an amusing epilog, it’s revealed that the young man has become a complete imbecile without regular sex, so Eddie has to arrange his girlfriend’s release from the Iron Curtain. Then it’s revealed that the young man has become an imbecile due to sexual satisfaction… nobody wins (except maybe the young ex-genius), and the war between both the sexes and the ideologies ends in the usual stalemate.
It’s impossible to believe that Franco would have missed seeing this movie during his time in Paris. The idea of a secret high-tech base full of women who want to take over the world would have been irrresistable to him. His later filmography features several scripts in which a male idiot uses his sexual charisma to take on a society of powerful (and superior) women, from The Girl from Rio through Robinson and his Sexy Slaves and Maciste vs. the Queen of the Amazons. He even named his production company, Manacoa, after the Land of Women featured in a popular comic book.
In any case, Franco’s Cartes sur table / Attack of the Robots (1966) is much closer in spirit to Ophüls’s film than either Alphaville or any of Borderie’s Lemmy Caution films. Franco and Carriè hit on an idea that Franco would return to again and again over his career: they would populate the movie with idiots, but treat the script as though it was completely serious. They realized that if they told the actors that their characters were ridiculous, they would overplay their parts and be too broad. On the other hand, if they allowed the actors to take the parts totally seriously, the result would be much better comedy. The only other person to get the joke was Eddie Constantine, who had a great sense of humor and loved the idea of parodying himself.
The setup of Cartes sur table involves a spate of high-profile assassinations carried out by men with curiously-dark skin. All the assassins wear black clothing and dark glasses. When one of the assassins is caught and deprived of his glasses, he turns into a mindless babbling lump; but when someone puts the glasses back on him again, he returns to life… and tries to escape from custody with superhuman stregth. In the ensuing fracas, the assassin is shot and killed. As he dies, his skin turns back to its normal color.
No, no, NO! When I said I wanted Elvis
impersonators, I meant Presley… not Costello!
INTERPOL determines that the dead killer was, in fact, a perfectly ordinary man who’d disappeared from a holiday several years ago. Further investigation shows that a number of people around the world have disappeared under similarly mysterious circumstances, and all of them share one distinguishing characteristic: they all had a rare (and utterly nonsensical) blood type.
The plan INTERPOL comes up with to defeat the network of killers, whoever they might be, is surprisingly similar to Franco’s plan for shooting the movie: they’ll hire an idiot and not tell him what’s really going on. The identify an agent with the same blood type, and set him up to be kidnapped. They plan to set him up with a plethora of James Bond-style gadgets: a cigar filled with poison gas, and a penny-whistle that activates the antidote… an umbrella that explodes when you open it (hope it doesn’t rain)… all of which are ridiculous, and none of which really work.
The poor sap will then fall into the clutches of the evil conspiracy, whereupon the authorities will move in and take over.
There’s only one agent with the precise blood type they need — not to mention the requisite stupidity — and that’s Al Pereira (Franco’s regular name for his hero). Pereira’s long since retired from duty, but his superiors know where to find him: “between a blonde and a bottle of whisky.”
Meanwhile, in a Hong Kong casino, Al Pereira sits sipping a Coca-Cola while chatting up a brunette (“Faîtes vos jeux, mesdames et messieurs,” says the croupier, in what I’m sure is a purely coincidental reference to Ophüls’s film). Unfortunately for both Al and the Western bloc, the Communist Chinese have also got wind of the mysterious blood control device, and they force Al into cooperating with them as well.
(Now, the idea that white people suddenly turn dark-skinned when they become slaves is troubling enough to modern sensibilities. But when we come to the casting of the Chinese spymaster Lee Wee, we have the usual problem of a Caucasian being cast in the role. Franco insisted in his memoirs that he tried very hard to get an authentic Asian actor to play the part, but that language problems eventually dissuaded him.)
Lee Wee. Still more convincing as an Asian than Lee Christopher.
So poor Al Pereira is thrust into a spy game where he’s the unwitting pawn of everybody involved. To make matters worse, everybody — even little children — seem to know that he’s the famous secret agent Al Pereira, making his attempts at subterfuge completely useless.
The movie establishes a connection with Alphaville not only by having Constantine end up confronting a mind-controlling computer, but also through the musical score by Paul Misraki, who provided the score for Alphaville, and had also done the music for several of the canonical Lemmy Caution movies. Franco also mentions Godard’s movie by name in an announcement on a public bus, heard in the background of the original French print of the movie. Thinking of movie connections, Franco regular Marcelo Arroita-Jaureguí (Dr. Orloff’a Monster) returns in this film as an agent who is killed trying to help Al infiltrate the lair of the villainous Sir Percy (Fernando Rey). Arroita-Jaureguí also appears onstage during a night club number, providing bass to Franco’s own keyboard-playing.
Unlike Alphaville, or even some of the late-period Borderie films, Eddie Constantine seems to be having the time of his life playing the clueless hero. Particularly amusing is the epilog, in which the triumphant Chinese reveal to Al Pereira that in spite of his success, he’s been played for a fool by all sides. As he tries to escape with his useless James Bond gimmicks, the Chinese just laugh all the harder… until one of them opens the “exploding umbrella”, only to find that that actually works. Lee Wee’s disgusted mutter, “Oh, shit…” is one of my favorite moments in the film.
Franco’s second and last film with Eddie Constantine, Residencia para espías (School for Spies, aka Golden Horn), is not particularly well-known even to Francophiles. However, it’s a crucial part of Franco’s filmography… not because it’s particularly good (it isn’t), or because it’s particularly original (it isn’t), but because of the number of firsts is represents.
For instance, it was Franco’s first film for producer Karl Heinz Mannchen, with whom he would work regularly thereafeter (Mannchen, as a reluctant German soldier, had been taken prisoner in France at the end of the Second World War; he’d escaped from France, but was recaptured in Spain. After his release, he decided he preferred the climate in Spain and started a new life there). It was also Franco’s first film shot in Istanbul, and Franco so fell in love with the city that he returned to it every chance he got (this helps explain why random bits of Turkish keep popping up in his later films).
Residencia… also marked the first time Franco tried making two very similar movies in quick succession. Franco was always a fast film-maker, and later on he often took advantage of the availability of his cast and crew to shoot part (or all) of a second feature. Sometimes he did this without telling anybody… not the actors, and certainly not the producers, since the second film would often be done for some other company, but at the first company’s expense. In the case of Residencia para espías, Franco shot his second Eddie Constantine film perfectly legitimately, shortly after (though not quite back-to-back with) his first. But according to actor Michel Lemoine (quoted in Obsession: the Films of Jess Franco), when he found he needed more footage for a re-release of the film, Franco convinced Howard Vernon to shoot his brief unscripted scene during the making of Necronomicon the following year. Sure enough, if you watch Vernon’s scene closely, you’ll see that Constantine isn’t clearly visible, and might be a stand-in when both he and Vernon are required to be in the same shot; and when Eddie gets attacked by thugs, Vernon’s body mysteriously disappears from the following shots. Vernon later found out he’d been cheated and raised holy hell.
Howard Vernon suddenly disappears
Residencia… was also the first Franco film to be released in color since his feature film debut, 1959’s Tenemos 18 Años. But from a technical standpoint, this movie is probably best remembered as the movie in which Jess Franco discovered the zoom lens.
Zooms seemed to Franco (and, sadly, other directors including Mario Bava) to be a way to add visual interest to his movies without the time and expense of additional camera setups. The modern zoom lens had been developed in the 1950’s, so the now-hackneyed device was still reasonably fresh when Franco started using it. The technique has not aged well, and Franco’s detractors often refer to his supposed overuse of zoom as evidence that he was a lazy hack with no interest in real cinematography. That’s a grotesque oversimplification; but it’s true that Franco did use zooms rather more than he should have in many of his films, and in the first half of Residencia… it seems to be used more for the novelty of it than for any particular aesthetic purpose.
In fact, Franco seems to have become bored with the plot of Residencia…, and used the movie as an excuse to try out all sorts of new technical tricks. The style of the photography does not match the story through much of the movie’s length. For instance, in addition to the zooms, there are also some moving-camera POV shots that work up a singular degree of menace, and would be perfectly suited to a horror film… but we invariably find these shots represent the point-of-view of our hero.
The plot, such as it is, casts Eddie Constantine as intelligence agent Dan Layton. Layton gets called away from his romantic entanglements to help get to the bottom of some stolen Cold War secrets. Somebody’s told the Russians that the Americans were moving nuclear materials into Istanbul. Fortunately the Americans are able to deny the accusations with a clear conscience (the move isn’t until next week). But it’s still an embarrassing incident. The source of the leaks seems to have something to do with a US-run girls’ school, located (for some incomprehensible reason) on the banks of the Bosporus in the Golden Horn section of Istanbul. Layton is to be sent there at once, to get to the bottom of the affair. If he has to get to the bottom of a few of the pulchritudinous students, too, well… duty is duty.
Layton is due to receive his orders in detail from an agent named Radek — played by Howard Vernon (dressed like Dmitri Shostakovich) in the briefest of cameos. This represents one of the few times that a character named “Radek” actually tries to help the film’s hero. Agent Radek is murdered before Layton can intervene, but Radek is just able to mutter the words “Istanbul… Hilton… Spokane!” before dying. Fortunately Layton understands this means he’s to meet with Col. Spokane at the Hilton in Istanbul, rather than going to meet Col. Istanbul at the Hilton in Spokane.
The girls’ school is run by the iron-fisted Captain Pendleton — who turns out to be a fiery middle-aged woman, ha-ha. Layton tries to chase the skirts at the school while avoiding Pendleton… as well as his on-again off-again CIA girlfriend, who keeps popping up in inconvenient places. Layton also finds himself having to fend off the attentions of Col. Spokane’s overly-affectionate wife (Diana Lorys)…
… who represents a very strong temptation. But all these romantic asides have a place in his plan, and bring him step by step closer to the truth. Somebody always seems to be one step ahead of him in his investigation, but fortunately most of the enemies he meets have no idea when to use a gun… or if they do, then they just don’t know how. The action stays pretty light-hearted and light-headed — including one of the worst versions of “When the Saints Go Marching In” you will ever hear — until the end approaches, and Layton suddenly finds himself surrounded by falling corpses. Then the movie turns grim, and the very last scenes are disturbingly different in tone from the comedy of the opening scenes.
One of the movie’s highlights is a fight to the death in a fully-occupied chicken coop. Another climactic fight scene is viewed through a shelf of distorting jars. Thinking of jars, other scenes seem jarringly wrong: for instance, Layton’s final confrontation with the person who’s really behind the espionage takes place just as a violent thunderstorm starts up… yet the storm is miraculously over a few seconds later, when Layton wanders outside. All in all, you get the feeling from Residencia para espías that Franco was varying his approach as the filming went along — trying all sorts of new tricks to see what worked. Some of his experiments succeed, many do not… but overall the film comes off disjointed and uneven.
Residencia… allowed Franco to work once more with Diana Lorys (Gritos en la Noche) and Marcelo Arroita-Jaureguí, while Dr. Mabuse himself, Wolfgang Preiss, is also cast in a small role. The film is minor Franco, certainly, but it’s not without interest, and it certainly isn’t a disaster — the movies that would destroy Franco’s good reputation were still at least two years away.